By Nijeesh N*
On June 9, 2016, 68 cadres of the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) led by its ‘chairman’ Novembirth Marak bade farewell to arms in an official disbanding ceremony held at the SMELC Building at Dakopgre in the Tura area of West Garo Hills District. “I appeal to other outfits to accept the call of the government, join the mainstream and work for the welfare of the Garo society,” Marak stated after the surrender. He also claimed that he had tried to convince at least five other outfits to come together and join the mainstream under the banner of A’chik Revolutionary Front (ARF), but the plan failed to materialize.
Earlier, on May 13, 2016, at least 24 Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) cadres surrendered in a ceremony in Shillong, the State capital. Among those who surrendered was ‘action commander’ Hedeo Ch Momin, ‘area commander,’ Chingnang and ‘deputy area commander,’ Sengrak M. Marak from the West Garo Hills District ‘command’ of the outfit, as well as four personal bodyguards of GNLA ‘commander-in-chief’ Sohan D. Shira. The militants also deposited a huge cache of weapons, including two AK and one SLR rifles, two pistols, 1,304 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, 3,446 rounds of medium machine gun ammunition, and incriminating documents. Hedeo later revealed that the huge amounts of ammunition which were purchased from Bangladesh were buried underground by Sohan at Durama in West Garo Hills.
On May 9, 2016, at least 14 GNLA cadres, including the ‘finance secretary’ Belding Marak aka Rakkam surrendered in Shillong. The surrendered militants, most of who belonged to the Nangalbibra area of East Garo Hills District, deposited a cache of arms and ammunition, including four AK rifles, one Heckler & Koch (HK) rifle, six pistols, grenades, and VHF communication sets. A large quantity of GNLA documents, including demand (extortion) letters, were also handed over to Police.
On May 4, 2016, 14 cadres of the ‘Northern command’ of the GNLA, including its ‘area commander’ Philiport D. Shira, along with two cadres of the Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) surrendered to the Meghalaya Police. The cadres also deposited a cache of weapons, including four AK and one INSAS rifles, six pistols, one carbine, a grenade, 484 rounds of ammunition, four handsets, incriminating documents and 19 illegal SIM cards.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 181 militants [GNLA (84), UALA (68), 11 each from A’chik Matgrik Elite Force (AMEF) and Liberation of Achik Elite Force (LAEF), two each from Achik National Liberation Army (ANLA) and Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), and one each from Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) and United Garo Security Force (UGSF)] have surrendered in the State during the current year (data till June 12, 2016). This adds to 67 surrenders through 2015 and 796 surrenders in 2014. The number of surrendered militants was just at nine in 2013, 14 in 2012, 34 in 2011, 17 in 2010, 10 in 2009, 15 in 2008, 27 in 2007, 42 in 2006, six in 2005, 73 in 2004, three in 2003, zero in 2002, 13 in 2001 and no surrenders in 2000. The significantly high number of surrenders in 2014 was primarily due to the disbanding of two factions of ANVC – 447 from ANVC and 301 from its Breakaway faction (ANVC-B) at a function at the Dikki-Bandi Stadium at Dakopgre in Tura in West Garo Hills District on December 15, 2014.
According to Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UHMA) records , the total number of militants surrendered in Meghalaya in 2015 was 78; 733 in 2014; 10 in 2013; 20 in 2012; 39 in 2011; 27 in 2010; 20 in 2009; 14 in 2008; and 40 in 2007.
The acceleration in surrenders since 2014 has been the result of counter-insurgency (CI) operational successes. State Police Forces backed by Central Forces jointly initiated an operation code-named ‘Operation Hill Storm-1’ on July 11, 2014, to flush out militants from the interior areas of the Garo Hills, which comprises of five Districts – West Garo Hills, East Garo Hills, South West Garo Hills, South Garo Hills and North Garo hills. The main aim of the operation was to deny the extremists, mainly the GNLA and ULFA-I, any ‘comfort zones’ in the region. The first phase ended on December 31, 2014. The Security Forces (SFs) launched the second phase, ‘Operation Hill Storm-2’, on April 2, 2015, and the operation lasted till June 6, 2015. ‘Operation Hill Storm-3’ launched on February 25, 2016, is ongoing.
‘Operation Hill Storm-1’ was launched in the aftermath of a sharp increase in civilian fatalities and cases of abduction and extortion in the Garo Hills region.
According to SATP, during Operation Hill Storm-1, the Forces eliminated at least 16 militants while losing six of their own personnel. Under Operation Hill Storm-2, at least 17 militants were neutralized and the number of SFs killed stood at four. In the ongoing third phase of the Operation, at least three militants have already been killed, while one SF trooper has also lost his life.
Inspector General of Police (IGP), in-charge of Law & Order / Operations, G.H.P. Raju stated on March 9, 2016, “As many as four GNLA camps have been busted and SFs have already recovered 70 Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), 1,475 electrical/non-electrical detonators and half a kilogram of gelatine explosive materials during the current phase of the operation.” Further, on May 13, 2016, he disclosed that 130 GNLA militants had been arrested since Operation Hill Storm-3 was launched. Earlier, SFs had claimed that they had destroyed 12 major GNLA camps in the East Garo Hills as a part of Operation Hill Storm-1, and another five camps during the Operation Hill Storm-2, along with several arrests and recoveries.
Clearly, the SFs have established an upper hand and the militants are feeling the heat. During the surrendering ceremony on May 4, 2016, Philiport D. Shira stated, “There have been serious internal conflicts within the GNLA after Sohan D. Shira, the ‘military wing chief’, refused to share extortion money with various commands. The other reason for the entire command to surrender to the authorities was pressure from the general public in the wake of counter-insurgency operations in Garo Hills.” Similarly, GNLA’s ‘action commander’ Hedeo Ch Momin during the surrender ceremony on May 13, 2016, admitted, “We were forced to surrender since we cannot bear the brunt of the operation launched by the state against us. We have not been able to stay in one place but have always been on the run. We had to remain alert all the time and in the process face a lot of hardships.”
The security environment in Meghalaya had started deteriorating from 2011, but has seen considerable improvement since the launch of Operation Hill Storm. The number of civilian fatalities in the State had risen from three in 2010 to 11 in 2011, and further to 27 in 2012, and 28 in 2013. [Meghalaya recorded 29 civilian fatalities in 2002, the highest ever in the State since 1992]. Civilian fatalities came down to 23 in 2014 and further declined to 19 in 2015. The improvement continues as the total number of civilians killed in the State during the current year stands at five (data till June 12, 2016) as against seven recorded during the corresponding period of the previous year.
Troubles, nevertheless, persist. On March 10, 2016, GNLA ‘publicity secretary’ Garo Mandei Marak warned, “If Government of Meghalaya doesn’t withdraw or stop the ongoing Operation Hill Storm-3 against GNLA, then we will push the buttons for serial blasts in all the five districts of Garo Hills.” The outfit also threatened IGP Raju, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, along with non-governmental organizations and Church elders, stating that the leaders would have to bear the responsibility for the loss of life and property that would take place. There have, however, been no attacks reported so far, subsequent to the threat.
On April 18, 2016, ignoring the GNLA threat, the Meghalaya Government decided to continue ‘Operation Hill Strom-3’ for another six months. Announcing this, IGP Raju stated on April 18, 2016, “Additional Special Force-10 Commandos, who are under intense commando training in jungle warfare, would be inducted for special operations against these militants to supplement the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams who are already involved in counter insurgency operations in Garo Hills”. Moreover, on June 9, 2016, Meghalaya Director General of Police (DGP) Rajeev Mehta ruled out the possibility of holding talks with the GNLA. “I think the most feasible way for the cadres of the GNLA is to surrender than thinking of talks”, Mehta said, adding, “Most of the cadres have already surrendered and my opinion is that there should be no leeway for such a group.” SATP data shows that at least 178 GNLA militants have surrendered since 2010: 84 in 2016 (data till June 12), 23 in 2015, 27 in 2014, three in 2013, nine in 2012, 27 in 2011, and five in 2010. The GNLA was formed in November 2009.
Meanwhile, in January 2016, the Meghalaya Government also decided to implement a proper scheme for the rehabilitation of surrendered militants. The State Government decided to turn the non functional Baljek Airport into a hub to house surrendered militants. Further, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Shri Kiren Rijiju, on May 4, 2016, stated in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) that “The Government of India is implementing a Scheme for Surrender-cum-Rehabilitation of Militants in the North-East… Surrenderees are paid monthly stipend upto Rs. 4000/- for a period of 36 months and an immediate grant upto Rs. 2.5 lakhs is kept in a bank in the name of each surrenderee as fixed deposit for a period of 3 years. Persons eligible under the scheme are initially lodged in a Rehabilitation camp where they are trained in a trade/ vocation of their liking or befitting their aptitude. The Scheme provides for impact assessment of the policy every year to ensure corrective action.” According to UMHA, at least 7,740 militants have surrendered across seven northeastern States (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) since 2007, including 143 who surrendered in 2015.
Just as the spurt in surrenders is a consequence of effective CI operations, any lessening of pressure will result in a reversal of this flow, as has been the case in the past, when surrendered groups have gone back to ‘business as usual’. The situation in Meghalaya – and in the wider Northeast – has enormously improved, but remains extremely unstable, with a number of surviving groups threatening peace, and wide gaps in governance, development and the outreach of public goods creating opportunities for militant recruitment.
* Nijeesh N
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management